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The great buy-in: How to learn to love AI at work

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The conversation around AI is changing — and the emphasis on the augmentation of current workers, rather than the wholesale replacement of segments of the workforce, is a significant (and many would argue, necessary) shift. However, anxiety and fear are still tough contenders for those trying to usher in a new era of AI-assisted workplaces.

“It all comes down to what people want to change,” said Matas Sriubiskis, Growth Analyst at Zoom.ai, during the recent mesh conference meetup at Spaces in downtown Toronto.

Zoom.ai is a chat-based productivity tool that helps employees automate everyday tasks including searching for files, scheduling meetings, and generating documents. In an interview with DX JournalSriubiskis said public opposition to AI remains a major stumbling block not just for technology companies, but for businesses around the world.

As the language around AI changes, it becomes obvious that people want change from the technology, but remain hesitant about the disruptive effect AI-based automation could bring to their industries.

As highlighted in a recent Forbes article, knowledge-based workers with tenure, who have developed their skill-set over a period of time, are acting along the lines of basic psychology when it comes to fear surrounding automation. Unfortunately, that push-back can severely stunt the success of digital transformation projects designed to improve the lives of workers throughout the company, not replace them.

“A lot of people are afraid that AI’s going to take their job away,” said Sriubiskis. “That’s because that’s the narrative that we’ve seen for so long. It’s now about shifting the narrative to: AI’s going to make your job better and give you more time to focus more on the things that you’ve been hired to do because you’re good at doing them. There are tons of websites online talking about whether your job’s going to be taken away by AI, but they never really talk about how people’s jobs are going to be improved and what things they won’t have to do anymore so they can focus on the things that actually matter.”

Buy-in requires tangible results

This general AI anxiety can seem like a big obstacle to companies looking to adopt AI — but there are important steps companies can take to ensure their AI on-boarding is done with greater understanding and effectiveness.

As startups and businesses look to break through the AI fear-mongering, they have to demonstrate measurable benefits to employees, showing how AI can make work easier. By building an understanding of how AI affects employees, showing them how it benefits them, and using that information to inspire confidence in the project, businesses can work to create a higher level of employee buy-in.

One of the simplest examples of how to demonstrate this kind of benefit comes from Zoom.ai’s digital assistant for the workplace. An immediately beneficial way AI can augment knowledge-based workers is by giving them back their time.According to McKinsey & Company research cited by Zoom.ai, knowledge workers spend 19 percent of their time — one day a week — searching for and gathering information, sequestered by app or database silos. By showing how the employee experience can be improved with the use of automated meeting scheduling or document retrieval, you generate employee buy-in, said Sriubiskis.

“For us, the greatest advantage is giving employees some of their time back, so they can be more effective in the role that they were hired to do. So if there’s a knowledge-based worker, and they’re an engineer for example, they shouldn’t be spending time booking meetings, generating documents, finding information or submitting IT tickets. Their time would be better spent putting it towards their engineering work. For an enterprise company, based on our cases, we estimate that we can give employees at least 10 hours back a month. That allows them to be more productive, increase their collaboration and their creativity, and the overall employee experience improves.”

Full comprehension of a problem leads to better implementation

Another way to ensure a greater level of employee confidence is to understand the core problem that AI could be used to solve. You can’t just throw AI at an issue, said Sriubiskis. The application of the AI solution has to make sense in the context of an identified problem.

“When a lot of companies talk about their current endeavours, they’re saying, ‘we’re exploring AI to do this.’ But they’re not actually understanding a core problem that their employees are facing. If you just try to throw a new technology at a problem you don’t fully understand, you’re not going to be as successful as you want. You might be disappointed in that solution, and people are going to be frustrated that they wasted time without seeing any results.”

This deliberate effort to understand a key problem before implementing a solution can drive to better outcomes. That’s why Zoom.ai has incorporated this kind of core observation into its process of on-boarding clients or approaching a new project.

“Before we do a proof-of-concept or a pilot now,” said Sriubiskis, “we require companies to do an interview with some of our product and our UI/UX team. That way, we can understand how they do things currently, but also so we can provide a quantitative metric. Qualitative is nice, but people also want to see the results, and make sure their work was worth it. We  make sure to interview a whole bunch of users, clearly understand the problem, and make sure what we’re doing isn’t a barrier to what they’re actually trying to solve, it’s going to help it and help it more over time.”

These approaches are all about making the team of employees feel like an AI solution is working for them, leading to greater effectiveness of AI implementation to augment the workforce. It remains key, said Sriubiskis, to make sure employees can see the tangible benefits of the technology. Zoom.ai makes that employee experience a core part of their on-boarding process: “We report back to our users and tell them how many hours they’ve saved. So they see how the actual improvements are seen by them, not just by management or the company as a whole.”

The future is filled with AI. It’s just a question of making sure it helps, not hurts, human capital — and that a positive transition to AI tools prioritizes the employee experience along the way.

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How will CIOs define success in 2021?

New research suggests CIOs are prioritizing digital transformation to “future-proof” their organizations and build resiliency.

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Recently, we reported IDC’s 2021 predictions, which noted that while CIOs have faced epic-level challenges this year, they’ll need to be in the front seat of the upcoming economic relief efforts.

At the top of IDC’s list was the prediction that by 2022, “65% of CIOs will digitally empower and enable front-line workers with data, AI, and security to extend their productivity, adaptability, and decision-making in the face of rapid changes.”

Since then, Gartner has also chimed into the CIO + Future of Work discussion. They identified “automation of routine work with AI, digital dexterity, and hybrid work with distributed workforce” as areas CIOs should focus on.

Now, a new report (based on a survey of over 100 Fortune 500 CIOs) from digital adoption platform WalkMe has uncovered how CIOs and IT organizations will define success in 2021, expanding on these aforementioned trends.

Multi-pronged approaches

In The CIO Outlook 2021, WalkMe — who commissioned Constellation Research for the report — found that 77% of CIOs list automation and AI as key to improving the effectiveness of IT. 59% say ROI from IT can be achieved through portfolio assessment and rationalization.

“CIOs are prioritizing overall digital change, keeping the organization safe, and improving the worker condition,” says WalkMe. Looking ahead, “CIOs must invest in finding the right models for enabling remote work while supporting their users.”

In order for organizations to adapt to change and become future-proof, CIOs need a multi-pronged approach, featuring:

  • No-code solutions
  • The automation of repetitive processes
  • Key software integration
  • Training and service through new approaches

As quoted in ITProPortal, Constellation VP and Principal Analyst Dion Hinchcliffe says:

“This data, gathered from top CIOs around the world, shows that they will be seeking dramatic improvements, especially significantly higher ROI (10-20 percent+) from their IT investment next year.” 

Want to read the full report? Find it here.

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COVID has accelerated digital transformation, but major hurdles still stand in the way

While 74% of executives believe they’ve been helping their employees upskill for this new way of working, just 38% of employees surveyed agree.

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It’s been widely reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation efforts across most industries. 

Organizations have had to move fast. From the scramble to get work-from-home measures in place once the virus really started to spread back in March, to retailers quickly shifting everything from customer service to e-commerce to digital, the word agile has been top-of-mind. Adoption of technologies like AI, automation, and the cloud has flourished so that organizations could meet these demands. 

We’ve covered pandemic-related/adjacent DX efforts in sales, cybersecurity, retail, manufacturing, digital communications, and those of Indigenous communities. One KPMG survey from August reported that “59% technology executives surveyed say that COVID-19 has created an impetus to accelerate digital transformation initiatives.”

A new IBM study of 3,800 global C-suite executives in 20 countries and 22 industries — titled COVID-19 and the Future of Business — found that nearly six in ten respondents have accelerated their digital transformations due to the pandemic. 66% reported completion of initiatives that previously faced resistance.

The study goes deeper, looking at what these leaders need to do to keep on track with these now-inevitable DX efforts. 

Barriers to progress

With agility and speed being so important, it’s of little surprise that leaders reported “traditional and perceived barriers like technology immaturity and employee opposition to change” were no longer in play. 

At issue? “This sense of urgency needs to carry over to any company’s most valuable assets—its people—as the users of that technology,” explains Mark Foster, Senior Vice President of IBM Services.

“We found that even as companies have rushed to adopt the technologies necessary not only to survive but thrive as business enterprises, too many of their employees feel stressed and even overwhelmed,” he elaborates. 

Executives are well aware of this: “They reported that employee burnout, inadequate skills and organizational complexity are their biggest hurdles to progress today and in the next two years.”

The problem is that there is a disconnect between what leaders say they are doing and what employees report.

For example, the report found that:

  • 74% of executives surveyed believe they have been helping their employees learn the skills needed to work in a new way, just 38% of employees surveyed agree. 
  • 80% of executives surveyed say that they are supporting the physical and emotional health of their workforce, while just 46% of employees surveyed feel that support. 

“It’s one thing to nimbly retool and modernize the workplace,” wrote Foster. “It’s quite another proposition to expect workers to quickly adjust to the upheaval in their lives and livelihoods.”

Steps towards ‘surviving and thriving’

The study concluded that there are three steps leaders and organizations are taking:

  • “Improving operational scalability and flexibility”
    • 94% of executives are planning for platform-based business models by 2022, as well as “a 20 percentage point increase in prioritization of cloud technology in the next two years.”
  • “Applying AI, automation and other exponential technologies to help make workflows more intelligent”
    • AI will be a major priority
    • 60% say they have accelerated process automation
    • 76% plan to prioritize cybersecurity
  • “Leading, engaging and enabling the workforce in new ways”
    • Simply put, people should be first. The regular workday and office is gone, and stress and uncertainty are high. “Employees now expect that their employers will take an active role in supporting their physical and emotional health as well as the skills they need to work in new ways.”
    • According to IBM’s recommendation, “empathetic leaders who encourage personal accountability and support employees to work in self-directed squads that apply design thinking, Agile principles and DevOps tools and techniques can be beneficial.”

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5 types of leaders who can get in the way

From the saboteur to the capacity monster, these personalities can hurt grassroots support for your digital transformation.

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Successful digital transformations require support from almost everyone in the company and in particular, from other leaders. You can have the best playbook ever produced, but it won’t matter, if you still lack that leadership support.

Leaders are so critical because they influence the attitudes and perceptions of the people on their teams. When they resist the change, their people will resist – and that paves a long and difficult road for the transformation. If they’re excited about the transformation, their support enhances your efforts and builds the momentum you need to succeed.

CIOs who navigate their colleagues’ different leadership styles and give the struggling leader what they need, without compromising the core goals of the transformation, will clear the path to a successful transformation.

In practice, we see five types of leaders who can stand in the way. Navigate their personalities and push back to move the transformation forward and (hopefully) bring them along with you.

The Saboteur

Every good spy movie includes a saboteur. Saboteurs appear to be on the team, which gives them access to information: But in reality, they work to subvert good efforts by collaborating with the villain. The hero of the movie eventually finds them out and “eliminates” them.

Identifying the saboteur and guiding them to support the mission requires more finesse in the real world. They resist behind the scenes, in conversations with the people they lead, and in everyday decisions. However they appear supportive in conversations with you.

To spot them, do some sensing in their organizations. Leaders reproduce their attitudes in their organizations and saboteurs betray themselves through their team(s). While you do your sensing, ensure you remain respectful and avoid becoming a saboteur yourself when discussing the situation with people on their team.

Be mindful that not every saboteur sabotages intentionally. They may not realize their own resistance and certainly, most lack malice. However they still resist the effort. Your mission: Discover why they resist and eliminate that challenge for them.

The HiPPO

HiPPO stands for “Highest Paid Person with an Opinion.” HiPPOs share their opinion with anyone willing to listen. They announce it in lead team meetings and they declare it to their team. Each moment offers an opportunity to actively resist transformation efforts.

Identifying a HiPPO is easy. They know they resist and probably already told you 10 frustrating aspects of the transformation that are “wrong” or “doomed to fail.” However they create collateral damage for the transformation very quickly, so get ahead of them as soon as you see one coming.

HiPPOs may be intimidating, but winning them over is often critical to your efforts. To resolve their concerns, sit down with them in a one-to-one meeting with an intent to learn. They probably have valid concerns and adjusting your transformation strategy to alleviate those concerns will not only win their support, it will strengthen your transformation strategy.

One other reason to win a HiPPO’s support for the effort: HiPPOs who support the effort can evangelize the transformation effort. In fact, winning the support of a HiPPO in early stages bolsters support for the rest of the transformation.

The Eeyore

Remember Eeyore from “Winnie the Pooh?” The pessimistic donkey dragged his feet on adventures and shuddered with fear during storms. Change scares him simply because it means something will be different.

Your digital transformation requires changes that frighten the tail off Eeyore. You stand in front of the room excitedly casting vision while they sit in the corner making a list of reasons the transformation will fail. At the top of that list? “It’s different than how we do it today.”

If Eeyore’s people are onboard, you can maintain the course. However, if they remain reticent, you need to win them over directly or win Eeyore’s support, which will help secure everyone’s buy-in.

Winning the support of an Eeyore requires empathy. As an IT leader, change drives your entire world and you adjust quite easily. However, Eeyore sees the flood of new information coming at them and turns away in fear. Spending time viewing the world from their standpoint and feeling the pressure and fear they feel provides perspective to ensure you capture important details, while showing Eeyore you care about their ability to make the change.

In reality, Eeyore rarely derails a transformation because everyone already knows they lag behind, which sadly causes their opinion to be dismissed by others more easily.

The Lukewarm Buzzkill

Some leaders (even visionaries) cannot see the vision you cast for them. You stand in front of the room, cast vision for the transformation (you nail it!)  and everyone is onboard, except one person who just doesn’t seem to get it. They’re lukewarm at best and they can drain the excitement from the room.

You can spot a Lukewarm Buzzkill by their lack of support. In normal circumstances, they voice support and cast their own vision for new initiatives. In this case, they disengage or they quietly wait for more information because they’ve heard the buzzwords and they’ve heard the theory, but it’s not real to them. They’re not afraid of change. They just can’t see where you’re headed. Gain their support and you get a teammate that naturally casts vision to everyone around them.

To help them, change the way you communicate. Instead of using charts and diagrams, make it tangible for them. They must see it to grab hold of it and become ardent supporters. Consider enrolling a designer to bring the transformation to life (app mockups, tool designs, etc).

A note of caution: When you show how an app might work or what the new customer interaction will look like, you create a risk. If they disagree with your theoretical execution, you create an uphill battle for yourself. To mitigate the risk, tell them the mockups represent ideas and then invite them into the brainstorming and more fully enroll them in the transformation process.

The Capacity Monster

Some leaders and their organizations lack capacity to play a key role in the transformation.

When you ask for their help these “capacity monsters” push back, talking about other priorities. Sometimes those priorities represent an unwillingness to change, in which case you need to address them as an Eeyore. Other times, those priorities build the business, and respecting them produces better business results.

When their reasons are truly mission-critical, win their support by investing transformation efforts more heavily in their direction. Consider addressing their current bottlenecks or finding tangential opportunities to help them create capacity. Either way, give them support in their mission-critical work.

While you’re helping them, strive to over-deliver and develop a case study. Eliminating their bottlenecks and helping their high-profile work succeed gives you an easy success to share, which can win support from other leaders for the transformation.

Enrolling these five types of leaders builds a critical front for pushing the transformation forward.  Doing it well multiplies your efforts across the entire organization, enrolling not just the leaders, but the people they influence. When you do that, the entire company will soon be bought-into the transformation, setting it up for success and building the organization’s capacity to tackle future change efforts more eagerly.

This article originally appeared on The Enterprisers Project under the headline: Digital transformation: 5 types of leaders who can get in the way. It is republished here with permission.

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